Sunday, September 28, 2008

Eleven Mistakes Made With Soil Blockers

I have heard that many people bought soil blockers through the years, and then, stopped using them. There are numerous complaints as to why they won't bother with them again. This has come about due to the lack of authentic information at the time of purchase, and misguided information from garden forums on the web. Results from your soil blocker should always be excellent. We have covered the basics for a successful experience at However, should you read this before you buy, or before you begin practicing the art of soil block making, as you will be far ahead of the learning curve. Once you know what NOT to do, maybe all that's left is the right way to soil block, and any further discussions, or shall I say, speculations, on garden forums on the web will end. Here is my top ten list of the biggest mistakes made, most common errors made, or beginner busters that need to be avoided. Let's count down to the biggest mistake. Oh, and on a positive note, the only way we learn is through our mistakes. So, thank us later, those who have come before you and learned the craft of soil block making.
Number 11. You don't wet the potting soil enough, or you water it down too much. Your striving for the consistency of oatmeal. You would want to pick up a ball of mud and sling it on a wall and there it would stick. You want your blocking mix to be wet, yet only drip when well squeezed with your hands. You are looking for stiff wet mix, yet you won't see any water puddling. The soil should easily stack up in your bin. Keep churning it, and adding water to wet, or more potting soil to dry.
Number 10. You don't dip your soil blocker in water after every discharge. Dipping is essential to wetting the machine and allowing the next round of blocks to eject smoothly.
Number 9. You don't screen your potting/blocking soil with a 1/4" screen. This is essential, as particles larger than 1/4" will clog the simple moving parts in your blocker. This causes the blocker to eject a crumbly erratic block.
Number 8. You don't charge, or pack your blockers with enough soil. Don't be afraid to pack that soil in the mold. How else is it supposed to hold up to watering and root growth without a pot to contain the plant? You cannot overcharge a soil blocker. This is why it was created: To hold 3-4 times more soil than a loose filled pot of the same dimensions. The roots will penetrate the soil easily, provided you made your own potting soil. See recipes.
Number 7. You don't cover your seeds with a sheet of black plastic, or sift more potting soil over the top. Unless your seeds require light to germinate, always cover with black plastic or sifted potting soil to anchor your seed in the block and mimic natural conditions, like moisture and darkness. Be aware that a vital seed will sprout very fast under the black plastic, so check every day.
Number 6. You don't use a thermostatically controlled heat mat. How else are you supposed to trigger the seed to sprout if you don't give it a perfect soil temperature 24 hours a day? In nature, the soil on the ground serves as a heat sink or bank and can retain that constant temperature. Not so in blocks and pots. You must provide the minimum heat requirements.
Number 5. You don't tilt, lift and twist off the bottom of your mixing bin to release the suction and pull off a clean and smooth bottomed soil block. This is certainly the trickiest trick to soil block making. If you don't tilt, lift and twist your blocks will get stuck in your bin over and over, or fall out prematurely, or not lay flat in your flat. Be prepared to practice a few times, if this is new to you and allow some trial runs.
Number 4. You don't use one hand with the Micro 20, 3/4" soil blocker. Try using one hand and pack and pack and pack the soil blocker until it is so compacted that the bottom looks like one block. Then, DON'T SCRAPE THE BOTTOM. Scraping the bottom of the Micro 20 is counter productive and ruins a good block. But, make sure it lays flat in you flat.
Number 3. You don't mist your blocks. How else are you supposed to deliver oxygen to your roots unless you "mist" them and oxygenate the water as you water your blocks? Mist mixes with air and light as it is soaking your blocks. Misters are easy to find and are the life blood of your plant roots. If all you have is a watering can, at least fill it up using a squeeze trigger nozzle and really, really agitate the water so it gets real foamy and bubbly. This aerates the water and delivers oxygen to your roots.
Number 2. You don't water them enough. After your seeds sprout, they'll need water three times a day if you use a peat moss based soil. Less, if it has coconut peat, and even less if it has water absorbing crystals in it. That's why it's important to know your ingredients. Bottom watering is helpful, but are you aerating your water with an air bubbler? Remember, you must actively aerate your water for your blocks, unless they're planted at the edge of a rushing stream!
Numero Uno. You don't use the right potting soil. You must make your own and in the correct proportions. At very least, you have to experiment with store bought brands. Potting soil and mixes were never meant to be used in compression machines. They were not formulated to allow water to penetrate while being compressed. They were not mixed with the right volume of peat to compost. They may not have enough aerator and moisture retaining ingredients like perlite, diatomite rock, or pumice. Or, the particles are too big. Or, the compost was made with forest by-products. Or, there was no long term fertilizer. Many people believe that all potting soils are the same and should work with their new blocker. All potting soils are not the same, and must be tested in order to see if they're compatible with the soil block machine. Some say that mixing their own is too much work, or they can't find the right ingredients. You can always buy the "Old Farm Boy" potting soil, which is specifically formulated for soil block makers, but is used by everyone. Because, while all potting soils can be used for containers, only one brand can be used successfully for block making. You simply have to mix your own if you want real great results.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Art of Watering Container Plants

Fertilizing plants and watering them properly are closely interrelated. Plants obtain sufficient nourishment only when the soil is moist. This horticultural fact is often overlooked.
Many people refuse to believe that plants should be watered every day. They counter with the assertion, "Over watering kills your plants." This is true, but 99% of all container bound plants suffer from drought rather than from excess water.
There are two methods of watering plants; one entails the use of a sprinkling can, the other is automatic watering. If you have gone to all the trouble of mixing soil and installing lights, you will want to understand thoroughly the principles behind each system. You never can quite get away from a watering can, and yet for your tiny seedlings, vegetables, annuals, and perennials you will probably prefer to use automatic watering.
The philosophy of watering is well illustrated in terms of the out of doors. What gardeners call a "really good rain" does not just sprinkle the ground but saturates it thoroughly. It does not come down in a flood but falls gently for some time. Growing conditions are considered excellent when such a rain is followed by sunshine, so that the soil dries out gradually; but before it actually cakes and cracks, another good shower should come along. Try to give your plants these ideal conditions. A number of things will help.
The first important step is to purchase a good watering can. A skillful waterer is able to use anything from a tumbler to a pitcher but a watering can with a long spout is a great help. Many types are on the market. One type has a spout two feet long, which makes it possible to reach all your plants easily. The tips of these spouts vary in diameter from 1/8" to 1/4". The smaller the opening, the smaller the stream they deliver. This is excellent for your plants, provided you do not skimp on the amount of water you give them. Sometimes it seems to take a long time to moisten the soil in a pot thoroughly with a small stream of water.
How to Water
With your sprinkling device in hand and your thinking cap set firmly on your head, you are ready to water. Do not just draw the water from the tap, but test it as you do for a baby's bath by sticking your wrist in it. It must be just lukewarm-neither cold not hot. Study, too, the needs of your plants. For example, our African violets, in three inch pots, usually require about one-fourth of a cup of water apiece per day. The begonias, on the other hand, one whose leaves are about equal to all the leaves of the African violet, takes at least four or five cups a day.
When the soil in a pot looks dry, pour on about 3/8" of water; if it looks quite wet, add 1/8" to 1/4". Add the water slowly. When a small amount seeps through the drain hole at the bottom, the plant is properly watered. If, in the course of a minute or two, no water has penetrated through, add more. Make a practice of letting only a small amount come through the hole, since large amounts of water will carry away the nutriments in the soil. But make sure it does come through; oftentimes you may need to add water two or three times if the soil is dried out. When you have learned to judge the needs of each plant more accurately, only a very small amount of water will seep through the drain hole. That is the whole story of correct watering.
But life is complex. Even in this simple operation there are a number of traps. You may have skipped a day or two so that the soil is thoroughly dried out and shrinks away from the sides of the pot, leaving a space around the edge. As you pour water out of your sprinkling can, it will drench down the sides and come swiftly out the bottom, counterfeiting the real thing. If your thinking cap slips off, you can water your plants in this fashion and scarcely give them a drop to drink, as the the ball of earth is completely dried out and the water will not penetrate.
When the soil in the pot is dried out, it must be thoroughly soaked, pot and all. Submerge the pot in a pan of water so that the water comes nearly to the rim. Remove the pot a soon as the soil is moist. With your fingers press the soil back against the sides of the pot so the gap will be closed and you can water normally again.
You can achieve the same result-but it takes more care-by watering the plant from the top and pressing the soil firmly against the sides with the fingers. The soil, as it gets wet, swells. The process will to be repeated three or four times before the soil is thoroughly moist. The first method is usually safer for a beginner.
Sometimes the drain opening in the bottom of a flowerpot will become sealed off. This prevents the water from draining through, and the soil becomes waterlogged. You can detect that a pot is not draining when water remains for some time on the surface of the soil. Correct the difficulty immediately, for plants cannot live long in water. Drain holes occasionally become sealed off when pots rest on a very smooth surface. Usually there is sufficient dirt or unevenness on a bench to prevent this from happening; but if your have trouble with it, the pots may me set a a hardware cloth, pebbles, or a layer of vermiculite.
You can tell whether soil is too wet or too dry by touching the surface with your finger. Dry soil is firm, and very little will adhere to your finger. Moist soil is soft, and much more will adhere, leaving your finger somewhat soiled. Water-soaked soil is so wet the water will ooze out when you press it. This usually occurs when your flowerpot is placed within a decorative container. Should this happen, immediately empty the water from the decorative container and take pot and plant to the kitchen sink. Lay the pot on its side, and the excess water which has collected in the soil will drain off. It is probably best to leave the plant on its side for about a half-hour, because the roots of the plant will die if they are allowed to remain in water soaked soil. After draining off the water from a water-soaked plant, do not water it until the surface of the soil again has a normal appearance. Soil is always darker when wet; as you observe its color, you will gain experience in gauging the amounts of water needed.
When all is said and done, watering from the top is an art, and many fail to learn it. However, there are other ways of watering plants. Self-watering devices are not difficult to install, and the plants thrive with this method of watering.
Automatic Watering
We were slow to investigate automatic watering for soil pots because we ourselves had mastered the art of watering, but once we had used it we became enthusiastic devotees of the system and installed it wherever we could. Unlike many automatic devices, an automatic watering system is not difficult to provide and entails very little expense. We got our start in gardening through hydroponics, the ultimate automatic watering device, but moved on to soil because it was less costly and less finicky and you can farm more land than hydro pots. With these simple techniques, the plants grow much better because the soil is kept constantly moist and it saves you a lot of time, hours of time.
One of the simplest forms is the wick method. It is possible to purchase special flowerpots that are designed to be used with a wick, but it is an easy matter to adapt any container. Just as a lamp wick carries oil to the flame, such a wick carries water into the soil as the plant absorbs it.
Wicks may be made of stove door seals or asbestos rope, cylindrical fiberglass, or pieces of cotton cloth or burlap make into 1/4" cylindrical roll and held in place with string or rubber bands. About 1 1/2" inches of one end of the wick are frayed and unraveled and spread out in the bottom of the pot. The other end is threaded through the drain hole and rests in water. The pot is rested to keep it above the water. Empty tuna fish cans, well washed, with a hole punched in the center of the bottom for the wick to pass through, make excellent stands for pots in your decorative water container.
Your plants will grow much better as soon as adopt this method, for it ensures a constant water supply. Of course, you need to keep the water replenished. Washing and packing of the soil and nutriments are also eliminated.
Seedlings which are to be grown in flats can be watered with wicks too. Holes about four inches apart each way are drilled through the bottom of the flat, and wicks run through the holes into a pan underneath, which is filled with water. Watch the flat to make sure it does not dry our even slightly, but generally it will not if the reservoir below is kept supplied with water.
When it comes time to fertilize the plants that are being automatically watered, we water each pot separately with a watering can. A fairly safe rule is to add 1 cubic inch of the fertilizer solution to each 6-8 cubic inches of soil. Thus, a three inch flower pot or a 2" soil block requires 3 tablespoons of the fertilizer solution. A 4 inch pot or 3" soil block requires 1/3 cup of solution; a 5 inch pot, 1/2 cup, and a 6 inch pot or a 4" soil block, 3/4 cup.
If you are using automatic watering for seedlings that you plan to transplant out of doors, and they are in micro blocks, it is very easy to figure the number of cubic inches of soil, and to add the proper amount of fertilizer solution each week. Fertilize when the depth of water is low.
Installing automatic watering does not relieve you of the necessity of keeping a watchful eye on your plants to see that they do not dry out. Oftentimes, it will be necessary to water from the top. Cucumbers, melon, squash, and lettuce seedlings use a great deal of water and will probably need additional amounts.